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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Should Georgia lower its BAC level?


Who doesn't love a perfect wine pairing with a plate of fresh pasta or hanker for an amber ale, (or two) to wash down a juicy burger? Well, if Georgia heeds the advice of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), you may start to think twice about having a drink with dinner at all.

Last week, the NTSB issued a recommendation for states to lower the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) level for drivers from 0.08 to 0.05. (It took 21 years for the states to lower the BAC from 0.10 to 0.08 following the NTSB's recommendation in 1982.) The NTSB argues that at a BAC level of 0.05 drivers can begin to have difficulties with visual functions, and at 0.07, cognitive abilities are affected.

While the NTSB's intent is to decrease the number of drunk driving fatalities, some fear this change may harm local businesses.

According to the director of the Brewers Association Paul Gatza, beer sales for restaurants that serve alcohol generally account for about 10 to 20 percent of their total revenue, while wine and spirits make up another 10 to 20 percent. "It could have a chilling effect on sales," he said.

Sarah Longwell, the managing director of the American Beverage Institute (ABI), agrees. "It would have a devastating impact on the restaurant industry," Longwell says. The ABI is a trade organization made up of 8,000 restaurant chains. "Moving from 0.08 to 0.05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior," Longwell said. Opponents also argue that putting more restrictions on the moderate alcohol consumption does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers.

Alcohol is one of the main profit builders for the hospitality industry. The National Restaurant Association says there are 13.1 million people employed by the restaurant industry alone, and that accounts for 378,200 jobs in Ga, (10 percent of employment in the state!). In the city of Atlanta, 195 establishments are considered bars, taverns, or nightclubs, which means the majority of sales come from alcohol.

A recent statement from the Distilled Spirits Council opposes the NTSB's recommendation. "Progress has been made in decreasing alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Reducing the BAC level will not be an effective strategy."

In the wake of a statewide crackdown on drunk driving in Ga. like Operation Zero Tolerance, the Century Council, an organization of distillers against drunk driving and underage drinking, found that between 2001-2011, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities have gone down 41.8 percent.

Restaurants and bars aren't the only skeptics. Chief Deputy Marty Bilek with the Douglas County Sheriff's Department said a lower limit would penalize responsible drinking. Bilek also added that a lower level could potentially bring in more DUIs in general and cost taxpayers more money.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a nonprofit organization that works against drunk driving, underage drinking, and advocates for stricter alcohol policy, stated their neutral stance on the recommendation. MADD president Jan Withers shared measures she believes will more effectively reduce drunk driving fatalities in "Other Measures Are Just As Important." "The campaign supports high visibility enforcement, ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 and higher, and development of advanced alcohol detection systems, like the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety program, which could one day prevent a drunk driver from operating his vehicle," Withers said.

Now it's up to the states to decide whether or not they want to change their laws. None have so far, and none have spoken out for or against the NTSB's recommendation. Still, if the national BAC level is lowered, Longwell argues that it will ""basically take away a part of the experience of dining out. When you take that element away, you take away some of the magic, the ambiance of a night out."

Would a BAC limit of 0.05 stop you from drinking at restaurants?

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